It's Time For... It's Time For... Comic Relief!

Between 1988 and 1995, BBC Radio 1 made a concerted - and highly successful - attempt at introducing a regular speech comedy slot into its schedule. Designed from the outset to help emphasise the station's distinctive identity, this initiative would give valuable exposure to performers and comic styles that would have struggled to get much airtime elsewhere, and amongst its most significant achievements were Loose Talk, Alan Parker's 29 Minutes Of Truth, Lee And Herring's Fist Of Fun, Collins And Maconie's Hit Parade, Armando Iannucci, Victor Lewis-Smith, Radio Tip Top and The Chris Morris Music Show. What is surprising in retrospect is that they never really staged a speech comedy show to tie in with the then-new Comic Relief event. They nearly did, though.

Reasoning that it made more sense to raise awareness in the weeks running up to Comic Relief night than actually doing anything that would compete with the television coverage itself, Radio 1 had marked the first event in March 1988 with a fortnight of guest appearances by comedians on their regular music shows. The following year, they began even earlier and in even bigger style, with a special hour-long edition of their first ever regular speech comedy show, Hey Rrradio!!!.

Fronted by up-and-coming standup Patrick Marber and comic poet John Hegley with his band The Popticians, Hey Rrradio!!! was recorded in front of a live audience at the Hackney Empire (and later the Woolwich Tramshed), as a sixty minute show which was edited down to thirty for broadcast. Developed by producers David Tyler and Bill Dare, it was a vibrant, raucous effort with the emphasis on edgy rather than topical humour, and in a sense was radio's closest equivalent to Channel 4's groundbreaking standup show Saturday Live. Beginning on 7th October 1988, the show's fast and tightly-edited nature was ideally suited to Radio 1 and to Station Controller Johnny Beerling's vision for its comedy output, and amongst the performers who appeared during its substantial run were Arthur Smith, Arnold Brown, Mark Steel, Paul Merton, Steve Punt, Hugh Dennis, Craig Ferguson, Donna McPhail, Jo Brand (then performing as 'The Sea Monster'), Norman Lovett, Sean Hughes, Phil Cornwell, Jim Tavare and Simon Munnery, with their performances interspersed with contributions from mostly 'alternative' musical acts.

Hey Rrradio!!! found a vocal supporter in Radio Times, which - unusually for a Radio 1 show - regularly carried photographs of Marber and Hegley to accompany its listings. However, not everyone was quite so taken with the show; one senior BBC executive was so disgusted by one of Jo Brand’s routines that he was moved to voice the opinion in a review board meeting that she should never appear on radio or television again. In itself Hey Rrradio!!! did not mark any revolutionary leap forward in comedy programming – as Bill Dare remarked, “in a sense it was simply a cabaret show” – but it did show what was possible within the confines of Radio 1’s output. Keen to build on this, Johnny Beerling commissioned Dare to come up with a new team-based show that would be identifiably Radio 1's 'own' in both tone and format.

In assembling said team, Dare selected two promising double acts that had already been making a name for themselves on the fringes of radio comedy. David Baddiel and Rob Newman had been at Cambridge University at the same time as each other, but had not actually worked together until they found themselves on the writing team of Radio 4’s Week Ending in 1986. Through the reputation that they had gained on the show – not something that was particularly easy to achieve on Week Ending, notorious for its long credits lists and high turnover of contributors – they had been approached to co-write some of Patrick Marber’s material for Hey Rrradio!!!. As such, they were both familiar with, and perfectly suited to, the style of comedy Radio 1 was aiming towards. Meanwhile, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis had followed a roughly similar career path. They had both been at Cambridge around the same time - in fact, Punt and Baddiel had both served as President of Footlights - and again found work on Week Ending. However, they had also enjoyed a significantly higher public profile, featuring regularly in Jasper Carrott’s Saturday night BBC1 show Carrott Confidential and on a number of radio comedy shows. To complete the lineup, Dare also brought in several performers from the more ideologically charged edge of the live standup circuit; Mark Thomas, Jo Brand and the musical duo Skint Video, otherwise known as Steve Gribbin and Brian Mulligan.

The projected series was named The Mary Whitehouse Experience, in a deliberately disrespectful reference to the veteran moral crusader of the same name. It was intended that this was exactly the sort of programme that Whitehouse herself would not have wished her name to be associated with, and indeed – although the details are somewhat confused and accounts differ – she is said to have threatened legal action against the BBC. The pilot for The Mary Whitehouse Experience was recorded on 20th February 1989, and played to Johnny Beerling on 8th March. Beerling was sufficiently impressed by it to clear a space in the schedules for transmission two days later, coincidentally on Comic Relief night, in what would subsequently prove an atypically early timeslot of 7:30pm. This, of course, coincided with the start of A Night Of Comic Relief 2 itself on BBC1, and it is unclear how many people actually heard the pilot; indeed, some of the cast were under the impression that it had never actually been broadcast.

Nonetheless, this was a fine way in which to end a month's worth of fund and awareness-raising efforts by Radio 1, which had also included a memorable appearance by Lanananeeneenoonoo - in other words, the guise adopted by Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Kathy Burke for that year's Comic Relief tie-in single - on Liz Kershaw's Breakfast Show on 11th February. It is only a shame that, perhaps feeling that their efforts were best concentrated in other directions, Radio 1 never attempted a full scale Comic Relief tie-in show again. That said, The Mary Whitehouse Experience's final appearance on Radio 1, and indeed on radio anywhere, Punt And Dennis Sample Mary Whitehouse, was broadcast on Comic Relief night in 1991. Typically, they didn't quite get around to scheduling it while the news was on.

If you want to hear me talking about The Mary Whitehouse Experience on Radio 1 Vintage, then you can find that here.

This is adapted from Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, which is available as a paperback or from the Amazon Kindle Store.